Bruckner Symphonies No 3, 6 Unitel Editions

Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 3 in D minor WAB 103 (1877 version)
Symphony No. 6 in A major WAB 106 (1879-1881)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Christian Thielemann
rec. live, November 2020 (3) and April 2022 (6), Musikverein, Vienna, Austria
Unitel Editions 807308 DVD [2 discs: 181]

In the run-up to the Bruckner bicentenary next year, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra has recorded for film a complete Bruckner cycle under the baton of Christian Thielemann, live in Vienna and at the Salzburg Festival. Surprisingly perhaps, this is the first ever complete Bruckner cycle by this of all orchestras. Unlike many so-called complete cycles of only the nine numbered symphonies, this series called “Bruckner 11” has included the symphonies in F minor and D minor known as the “Study Symphony” and “Number Nought”. The latter is especially important, because it was written between symphonies No. 1 and No. 2. Those two are premieres on DVD and Blu-ray. This is the penultimate issue. The series will complete at the end of April 2023 with the release of symphonies No. 4 and No. 9.

While Unitel talks of live recordings, those are not always in concert or before a live audience. Here the Third Symphony seems to be played in a darkened and empty Musikverein, as was Symphony No. 1 (review). It is live because we see and hear a single continuous performance. The players are formally dressed, and there is no applause except the tapping of bows for the conductor. In November 2020, the lack of an audience might have been the effect of the pandemic, but the orchestra is not socially distanced. Install some gilded caryatids, paint the nine muses on the ceiling of your listening room, and the VPO is playing just for you, alone in the Musikverein.

The Third Symphony has three viable versions. The 1873 score contains some (far from blatant) Wagner quotes, and is 280 pages, or 2056 bars, long. The 1877 version removes the quotes and drops to 262 pages, 1815 bars. The 1889 score has more cuts and alterations on its 202 pages and 1644 bars. For many years, this shortest version was the most recorded and performed. A Bruckner textual revolution in recent decades has looked again at the viability of earlier versions of the symphonies. Many have been rehabilitated and recorded, often in new scholarly editions. Thielemann, interviewed in the extra feature on the first disc, says the third version is too abridged, with “valuable elements omitted”. As a few other conductors of late, he prefers the 1877 version.

Needless to say, the VPO play beautifully, right from the first trumpet announcement of the main theme of the opening movement, which so impressed Wagner when he accepted the dedication of the score. It is played piano, as the score indicates, not the usual mezzo-forte, so we get a more poetic opening. When forces gather for the first tutti (ff marcato) there is an imposing grandeur to the orchestral sound. Lyrical moments have time to breathe within the prevailing tempo relationships. That is also true of the slow movement, songful and poised, showing off those famous VPO strings. The terrific scherzo is dynamic, and its innocent trio trips with an especially Viennese gait, naturally.

The finale opens in splendour, and closes with as grand a peroration as could be wished. In between, the episodic nature of the movement does not seem especially problematic when it is all played with such conviction. The Third Symphony in all versions has structural problems, but the listener is persuaded of the flow and rightness of the succession of musical events. It helps when the conductor has the grasp of its direction, and sees the end in the beginning, as Thielemann does (conducting without the score). He is a straightforward and unfussy, yet dynamic, Bruckner interpreter. In that, he most recalls Bernard Haitink, as does his undemonstrative platform manner.

The Sixth Symphony is played before an audience, and Thielemann seems to direct it with the same ease of manner. But the filmed interview about the Sixth shows otherwise. He refers to the difficulty of conducting it, not least because of the polyrhythms. The film of a rehearsal shows the players needing help too, right from the opening bars. I know few extras on an orchestral DVD which offer such illumination of the actual performance – where the first movement is splendidly executed, right through to the magnificent coda, which Tovey said “Wagner might have been content to sign”.

Thielemann and the Dresden Staatskapelle have recorded earlier live film of the Sixth, discussed in a while. The VPO account takes much the same time in each of the first three movements. The difference is in the sublime slow movement. Its 16:31 in Vienna might not seem much shorter than 17:58 in Dresden, but there is a slightly greater sense of flow with little diminution of solemnity to the feeling; the Adagio is marked sehr feierlich (very solemn). And the VPO in their packed Goldener Saal of course sound fabulous at times. The curious scherzo, so different from most of Bruckner’s other greatly varied scherzi, is a delight, especially its Trio with pizzicato strings duetting with three horns, then woodwinds quoting from the Fifth Symphony. The Finale’s tempo is a touch quicker than in Dresden (14:09 instead of 14:32), but not so much as to deny Bruckner’s marking of “not too fast”. Each episode is well characterised without any loss of the overall momentum that ignites a very satisfying blaze at the end.

This might be the first Bruckner cycle for the VPO, but it is the second for Christian Thielemann. He recorded Nos. 1-9 for film with the Dresden Staatskapelle for the C major label. Symphonies No. 3 (1887 version as here; review) and No. 6 (review) were issued separately on Blu-ray. I have later watched those performances, and I agree with my colleagues’ enthusiasm. The movement timings are very similar in both works, except that the finale of the Third in Vienna is a minute and a half longer than in Dresden (17:29 instead of 15:57). This is my current favourite among recent accounts of Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony, one of the most difficult to get right. Thielemann wonders in the interview if even Karajan ever played it in public (his recording is the weakest in his cycle).

These discs also include the extensive conversations with Christian Thielemann about each symphony and the insights into his rehearsal work, well worth having (there are good English subtitles). The audio recording, very good in stereo and in 5.0 surround sound, captures the VPO in its own hall very well both in quieter and louder passages.

Roy Westbrook

Help us financially by purchasing from

Presto Music
Arkiv Music

Video details
Bonus: ‘Discovering Bruckner’, interviews with Christian Thielemann by Johannes-Leopold Mayer in German with subtitles in English, Korean, Japanese.
Mastered from a HD source.
Picture format: 1080i/16:9
Sound format: PCM Stereo/DTS-HD MA 5.0 (symphonies), PCM Stereo (bonus).
Regions: A, B, C.